fbpx Skip to main content

Sitting in the doctor’s office Thelma was having trouble hearing what she was being told.

Her vague symptoms of bloating and abdominal pain appeared to be worrying the doctor.

She could see his mouth moving and heard certain words; cancer, inoperable, nothing can be done but couldn’t take in what that meant. She desperately wanted to be somewhere else. She missed the support of her husband who had died several years ago. He would have known what to say and what to ask. She wished one of her children had been able to come to the appointment with her.

Tears slowly meandered down her right cheek.

The doctor took her hand and gave it a squeeze saying,

“I know this is a lot to take in.”

“Is there anyone we can call who can come and be with you right now?”

Then sat and waited for Thelma to speak.

“It’s bad is it doc?”

“I’m afraid it looks that way. Is there anything you want to ask me?”

Softening the blow with empathy and compassion.

Health practitioners and those in caring professions are typically expected to show empathy and compassion with their patients but sometimes it goes missing in action or was already in low supply.

The empathy stealer being the common culprit “too busy”

Too busy to stop and make the time to smile and ask, “How are you?”

Too busy to notice the pain in a colleague’s eyes who has been overlooked again for a promotion.

Too busy to see the child afraid of failing who is desperate for encouragement.

Empathy shows you get that someone is doing it tough and you feel their pain with them. 

Empathy matters. Empathetic leaders command greater trust and respect boosting engagement and motivation.

The patients of empathetic doctors recover more quickly from illness.

But research has confirmed a serious empathy deficit in the health arena with 56% of doctors reportedly saying they don’t have time for empathy.

But the reality is being empathetic takes no time at all.  A 40-second interlude of empathy and kindness having been shown to result in significantly reduce anxiety levels.

This isn’t about tea and sympathy; it’s about human connection to reduce pain and suffering and alleviate anxiety and depression.

All well and good, I hear you say, I’m not a doctor.

Maybe you’re not.

But hopefully you are human and as such every interaction you have with another person is an opportunity to connect at a deeper and more meaningful level.

Empathy can be learned, and compassion grown.

In their book Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence the Caring Makes a Difference authors Treziak and Mazzarrelli reviewed over 1000 scientific abstracts and 250 research papers and found that treating patients with medicine and compassion was good for both patient and doctor reducing the risk of burnout,  well recognised occupational hazard for health professionals but also a serious problem in the corporate arena.

So much so the WHO recently reclassified burnout as an occupational syndrome resulting from chronic overwork and stress leading to mental exhaustion, negativity and cynicism and reduced efficacy.

Burnout is rife in the medical profession and elsewhere with an annual global price tag of $322 billion.

What a waste of human potential and wellbeing.

What a waste of an opportunity to connect and reduce suffering.

Helping others whether through volunteering, giving back or offering help and support makes the giver and receiver feel good.

Helen Reiss is a psychiatrist and researcher. In her book The Empathy Effect she relates how empathy is vital to the creation of a caring compassionate society. At a time where despite rapid technological advance, improved health care and advances in treatment, a time of growth and prosperity, and instant communication there is a growing level of loneliness and disconnect.

There is a great need for a more empathetic and compassionate approach in how we conduct our lives.

Reiss describes three components to empathy

  1. Emotional resonance When we see someone who is hurt our brain responds as if it is ourselves who are injured, with our pain pathways lighting up.
  2. Cognition to understand that everyone’s pain is unique to them enabling us to take the other’s perspective.
  3. Concern being the motivation to respond and take care of another person.

This is what determines our response if we witness a car accident or notice someone is about to engage in self-harm. We might be on our way to an important meeting or to pick up our kids from school, but the empath will stop to attend to a stranger’s need for support and help first.

Empathy skills are now taught in a variety of medical schools commonly based on the model developed by Reiss aptly called EMPATHY.

E  Eye Contact

The eyes have it. We sometimes deliberately avoid eye contact if we sense we’re about to be approached by a salesperson hawking their wares or when walking past a homeless person begging for money on the street.

There are countless ways we deliberately ignore those we don’t wish to interact with by avoiding eye contact because it is the first step to acknowledge a person’s presence and lets them know “I’ve seen you.”

That’s why the first step is to look up and engage by gazing into the other person’s eyes.

M  Mirroring facial expression

Our facial expressions give away our mood. A smile or a frown influences our mood and that of those around us. A warm smile lifts our spirits and will be reciprocated. A solemn expression will be mirrored in the same way. That’s why we smile a lot when trying to cheer someone up, because we’re trying to get their facial muscles to mirror ours.

P Posture

How we sit or stand speaks volumes as to how open or closed we are to interact with another person. Leaning in shows an interest. Leaning away means leave me alone!

 A Affect

Call it out for what it is, emotionally. Expressing our feelings by using language to describe the emotion helps others to understand what you are going through.

T Tone

This is where knowing how to be a musical engineer works wonders. Moderating your tone to match the person you’re speaking with, (unless they are shouting) shows you are “feeling with” the person. Tone accounts for 38% of our non-verbal communication.

H Hearing

Active listening is key to developing empathy. It’s time to zip the lip and wait to allow the other person time to process what they want to say. Listening is a powerful way of showing your genuine desire to hear what is (or isn’t) being said and gain understanding

Y Your response

This is about what happens next. How you respond and what you say determines how much the other person feels related to. Can they trust you? Do they believe you are genuine in your offer of support?

This is empathy in action.

Are empathy and compassion in residence in your workplace?

What simple steps could you employ to start raising greater awareness of the need for a more empathetic approach?

Do you practice compassion for yourself and others and how does that show up in your life?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

Leave a Reply